Seeing the Possibilities in staff and an organisation


This is the fourth blog in my reflection of “A Modern Interpretation on Leadership in Parks”

How many times have you heard the refrain “staff are your most valuable asset”.

Apart from the fact I detest the word “assets”, it is automatically treating you as a number rather than as just an honest person.  However, how often do you find an organisation that is struggling and apparently needing to change, do leaders turn to creating Visions and have the need to have change management processes in place.   Where they suddenly need to change the Culture – to become youthful and vibrant.  What happened to that great saying “staff are your most valuable asset”.  Why does this saying get discarded so quickly?

So how does an organisation and maybe their leaders from Directors to the Senior executives find the “heart and minds” of the staff?  Rather than change the culture? It is probably these staff who have enabled an organisation to survive serious crisis’s  (think classic emergency response be it earthquake to fire) and may have been working away at achieving the foundational vision and mission of the organisation.

When an organisation is in crisis, the new leadership should seek out and understand those that day in day out “make” the difference and more importantly may know what to do to make an organisation great again.  It wouldn’t be that they are fearful of the future – they may already see and have grasp what it is and they may have a better sense of what the organisation stands for.  But how do you find these so called “assets” or the lost ones?

There is an organisation that I once worked for who have been going through this – “got to change and become youthful and vibrant”, that has had serious impacts on its ability to achieve present and future social obligations.  This journey for the organisation has meant most things haven’t progressed past the thinking that existed in 2010.  So why, haven’t they progressed or performed at the level expected (and that is not saying that there aren’t possibilities).  Even though they have been going through the youthful and nearly bohemia renewal (with limited success), there are many staff who might hold the key to the future, who might already grasp what needs to be done.

This dilemma of leadership grasping the abilities, ideas and vision of staff was brought home to me over the last 16 years, where I watched a small number of individuals create an idea, that fundamentally changed the concept of parks.  It took those staff 5 to 6 years to have the concept accepted within their own organisation but saw it expand and grow internationally as other leaders saw the possibilities in the concept.  An example of this is the USA National Parks Services where the leaders have embraced a concept from Australia and are now seen as the world leaders.

Leadership is the ability to see what is really possible in your staff.

The concept is Healthy Parks Healthy People.


Elery Hamilton-Smith (1929 – 2015) – A magnificent man who cared for people and the environment

When I was notified that Elery had over the weekend past away, I was sitting outside a cabin on Rottnest Island (Western Australia) looking over the ocean but more particularly sitting atop a limestone system. Three of Elery’s passions…karst systems, people and parks. A setting very appropriate to reflect on the impact Elery had on myself and parks.

I first really got to know Elery in the early 1990’s, when a colleague of mine, Brett Cheatley engaged Elery as part of a team to undertake a review of urban parks and their visitors but also to explore the concepts of “benchmarks”. That initial interaction lead to a wise counsel relationship that guided much of my thinking around parks and people. When I was floundering to find a topic for my Master’s Thesis, my supervisor Bill Russell (Monash University) suggested I seek Elery out. Meeting in the front room in his house, Elery, in a very typical Elery fashion – that look and stare of intense interest..questioned me about how society was changing, how parks were changing and thus “what was management”. This was the mid 1990’s and thus led to a thesis around “managerialism in parks” and many endless discussions on parks, people and the future.

That experience shaped my thoughts on so many topics ranging from:

  • A whole of system approach to park management that resulted in the establishment of Parks a Victoria
  • The interconnection of people and the environment that resulted in the Healthy Parks Healthy People
  • Learning and innovation that has resulted in me revisiting the “design” of parks through the concept of legacy
  • Management and leadership that resulted in the Parks Forum and the recently established World Urban Parks

But more than that, he encouraged thinking, a lost art. He also encouraged a holistic and humanistic approach. He engaged with all and was very forgiving.

Neil McCarthy

A short Biography

Elery Hamilton-Smith (born 28 December 1929) is a retired Australian interdisciplinary scholar and academic, latterly adjunct professor of Environmental Studies at Charles Stuart University.

Elery grew up in rural South Australia. He did not have conventional academic training, and graduated from the University of Adelaide with a Diploma in Social Sciences in 1956

Elery worked in teaching and community services (1949-68) social policy & Planning Consultant (1969-77). He developed a plan for education of recreation and leisure workers and helped establish courses in 6 universities (1974). He was appointed lecturer and continued as Professor and Head of School in Social Policy and Community Services (1969-95). His career over this period included wide-ranging research and consultation often centred upon leisure policies and programs. He undertook various national policy development studies, visiting professorships, Educational Fellowship with Government of Canada, work with UNESCO, WLRA Centre of Excellence (Wageningen), and Benefits of Leisure studies with the US Forest Service.

In the 1990s Elery moved progressively from his interest in outdoor recreation into examining issues of sustainability and environmental studies; accepted a chair in environmental studies and worked as an advisor with both IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and the UNESCO World Heritage Bureau.

Elery had wide interests and he had worked on:

  • social policy development and programmes dealing with youth issues.
  • development of leisure and outdoor recreation activities
  • Conservation, particularly tourism and visitor appreciation of wilderness and National Parks
  • Cave and karst management
  • sustainability and environmental studies.

Elery had published over 2,000 books, reports and papers and worked in 50 countries.

Elery’s contribution to Australian society was recognised in 2001 when he was awarded Membership of the Order of Australia (AM) in Australia Day Honours. Elery was also recognised by his park peers when the Parks Forum in 2010:

“formally recognised the life-time commitment of Elery Hamilton-Smith AM for his work for parks around the world, starting with his advocacy work in the 1960s. Elery has held many professorial appointments and undertaken various roles with UNESCO and the United Nations development program. He also has many years of working in various IUCN programs, as a volunteer.”

Reflections for the Park

From Brett Cheatley (Cheatley Consulting)

“Elery was one of those people who knew the world of urban parks better than anyone in those days and kept up this interest until his final days. He was a great research mentor especially in the area of park visitor research and visitor services. He was one of the early adopters of the need to evaluate the benefits provided by an effective urban park system. His advocacy preceded Healthy Parks Healthy People and in many ways his support and intellect took many on the journey toward the same outcome of measurement; ie. that urban parks and open space equate to a healthier and happier society. Elery was comforted in the fact that his research had shown that urban parks had been an important element of city design throughout history and yet he had become a tad disillusioned by the lack of understanding of their role and effective management. He was a strong believer that eventually communities across the world would understand both the intrinsic and extrinsic value of urban parks and that this alone would drive their protection and sustainability. Always the academic researcher and publisher; he though that research into their visitation and use, and its subsequent publication, was the key.”

From David Clarke (Former CEO Parks Forum)

“In my early time at Parks Forum, as a person with more naiveté than knowledge about parks, I found Trustee Elery incredibly generous and patient with his time. From my perspective, he contained in his life experience an exceptional body of knowledge, and the sharp mind to make use of it. Along with Peter Bridgewater, Elery taught me a lot about the international context for the work of Parks Forum, and despite many other ongoing interests, he remained committed and passionate in his views about parks and their administration. He stayed connected. He provided regular feedback on the work we were doing. On a number of occasions during my role, Elery hosted me at his home with a cup of tea and strong advice on our international relations, in an office of old-school academic style and achievement – smelling of books and leather and crammed with the paperwork that reflected his continuing interests. His great mind, his achievements and life commitment to parks demand the highest respect, and that is how I will remember him. With the greatest respect.”

Japan – Progressing from Park Administration to Park Management

This week I have spent time in Japan with a range of colleagues and park managers from Korea, China and Japan. I was the Keynote speaker at the International Symposium on the “The Future of Park Management” at Awaji Island, Hyogo (Japan) (the home of the origin of Japanese cultural and society).

The Symposium was part of the15th anniversary of Awaji Flower Expo: Japan Flora 2000. The Awaji Park and flower show was part of the major recovery effort following the tragedy of the Tohoku earthquake in 1995. This Symposium has been seen in Japan as a major point in the park/landscape sector as the topic – “The Future of Park Management” signaled a major change in their thinking as they shift from “administration to management to leadership”. This shift I have personally witnessed over my 25 years of involvement in park and conservation management in Japan.

As you all would be aware Japan has been continuously facing a number of challenges including but not limited to, population problems, such as aging society and decline in birth rate and a flagging and changing economy. So the International Symposium was timely.

My keynote built upon the Philosophy and Theme of the Symposium and explored emerging concepts and paradigms and will set the “Signposts” for the future of Park Management. As would be expected regarding such a topic that one would talk about the plethora of challenges ranging from climate change, increased urbanization and rapidly changing social demographics to name a few. However these challenges internationally have been well researched and documented and are well known to park managers. However the real challenge is how we respond to them and responding to them in ways that dynamically benefit society today and tomorrow.

My Keynote focused on how “parks” are part of the solution and not the problem and thus how to be relevant to society now and into the future. The recently released “Urban Agenda” for the USA NPS, once again highlights this challenge.

My keynote explored why the responses that have emerged over the last twenty years are becoming the basis of the future of park management. I explored topics ranging from

  • Design Legacy,
  • Community Leadership,
  • Branding (Marketing) and
  • The business disruption models that are upon us – The ParkSparks.

My Keynote challenged the model of Leadership required from community leaders, park professionals and park professional organisations and why failing to act now is not a choice.

“Instead of being afraid of the challenge and failure, be afraid of avoiding the challenge and doing nothing.” -Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda Motor Company.

The International Symposium included three parallel sessions:

  • Public Parks contributing to a healthy life
  • Public Parks leading civic cooperation and community revitalization
  • Public Parks developing the next generation

I participated on the panel for “Public Parks contributing to a healthy life” and summarized the key findings from the session.

Major Observations from the Symposium:

  •  Better Designed Parks: there is significant recognition that existing parks have to be re-designed to be beneficial to local communities – See Ohori Park Fukuoka
  • Promote, Promote, Promote – the Japanese now recognize that they need to manage parks and more especially market and brand their products & services – See Parks & Health
  • Partnership & Alliances – Japanese park managers have been aggressively pursuing new partners and approaches especially with the health sector, community / Friends groups and more excitingly a major Japanese Sports Company.
  • Participate Internationally – there is great support for improved international networking and knowledge exchange such as World Urban Parks

Potential ground-breaking innovations from Japan:

Ohori Park (Fukuoka) – a park that was originally built in 1929, that was poorly used and poorly designed for “adaptability”. An individual with a health academic background and a keen interest in improved “preventative” health care regarding obesity and diabetes, energized the community to redesign the park – the success in what has been achieved is the staggering and not only includes improved park facilities, includes “The Beach House” Outdoor Fitness club (effectively a social enterprise approach) with changing rooms etc. The success of the revitalization is that they now have a western styled “coffee shop” in the park.

“Parks & Health” Brand – Built around the HPHP concept, the Japanese have developed a brand that brings nature and health together – with an image that connects traditional Japanese colours (red & white), the rising sun, Japanese crane and “leaf”. In the last two years since the concept was released through a range of prog rams, they have seen great success and the development of key strategic alliances including with Mizuno (a leading Japanese sports manufacturer).

Mizuno in Parks – Can a for profit sports company really play a proactive social based role in solving health problems caused by inactivity. Mizuno are now involved in ~130 parks across Japan that include over 700 facilities. They have become a strong supporter of the Japanese “Parks & Health” program and have established a separate organizational arm to manage this innovative direction. So would Nike do the same for Americans? Would Billabong or Quicksilver do they same for Australians. Would Adidas…?